Over the past six decades, the planet has seen more than 9.6 trillion tons of glacial ice melt. The value, calculated by the University of Zurich, is related to the progress of climate change and stands out for two reasons. First, for its roundness; second, because, precisely for that very reason, its figures are difficult for us to digest. How to visualize almost 10,000 gigatons of ice? How much is that equal to? Go from data to idea is not easy.
Aware that a picture is worth a thousand words —or a thousand data, for that matter—, NASA offers a tool that helps visualize how our planet is transforming. Images of Change takes advantage of the photographs that the US space agency has been taking for decades from space. The best thing about the resource is not that it shows how the world is now, but that it allows you to appreciate its drift, see how certain points have changed over time.
The material allows us to appreciate the deterioration of glaciers, but also the effect of droughts or torrential rains. The photographs show other phenomena that change the physiognomy of the planet without being related to global warming, such as volcano eruptions or, without going any further, the renovation of lighting in a large city or a transformation in land use.
A “before and after” in every rule. Except that thought to remove consciences.
Ice loss on the Antarctic Peninsula
What you see in the photos is the evolution of Larsen B Cove, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Between the two —the most recent, as in the entire list, is the one on the right— the detachment of a large area of ice that had been attached to the coast can be seen. The sea ice slowed the flow of the glacier towards the sea. Once dispersed, NASA notes that it is likely to speed up.
The melting of the Helheim glacier
Images captured by NASA show a fjord in which Greenland’s Helheim Glacier is crumbling into icebergs. The agency explains that the output of the glacier remained stable for decades, between the 1970s and 2001, when it was found that it was beginning to recede towards its origin. Its experts appreciate an “acceleration” in the flow of the glacier itself towards the sea.
Accelerating changes in the Vavilov Ice Sheet
The sequence shows changes in a glacier at the edge of the Vavilov Ice Sheet in the Russian Arctic. Scientists found that their slide toward the sea was accelerating in 2010 and 2014. “The surprising change requires rethinking whether other similar glaciers may be less stable than previously assumed,” says NASA, noting that a more rapid loss of ice into the ocean can have the same effect on sea level rise.
35 years redrawing the Grand Plateau
Between both images there are three and a half decades of difference. The first was taken in 1984 with the Landsat 5 satellite; the second is from 2019 and was captured by Landsat 8. The sequence shows the evolution of the Grand Plateau glacier, in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park: its arms shortened and the material – known as “glacial flour” – deposited in the lower lake has changed its color.
A glacier in southern Patagonia in retreat
Most of the glaciers in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which stretches between Chile and Argentina, have been deteriorating over time. NASA images show the HPS-12, which in a matter of several decades has lost a considerable size: from a length of 26 km in 1985 it passed, in 2017, to 13. During the process it has detached three other glaciers.
The footprint of the heat wave in Europe
The effects are not only visible on glaciers. This sequence allows you to see how quickly the “footprint” of a persistent heat wave can be seen. The first photo, greenish in color, is from 2017. The second, with a more brown coloration, is from 2018, after a period that, according to the European Space Agency (ESA), left record temperatures in much of this part of the world.
The impact of mining activity
Mangystau, in Kazakhstan, near the Caspian Sea, leaves another example of the influence of man. In the 1990s, oil and gas deposits began to be exploited in the region, which has changed the landscape. Production facilities and settlements can be seen in the 2011 photo. NASA notes that their activity has raised concerns about the quality and availability of fresh water.
The footprint of light pollution
Not all changes come from rising temperatures, droughts or deforestation. The great works, the use of the land or something as simple as the change of lighting leave a mark that can be seen from the space. The photos, taken from the ISS, show Milan after the lighting change and the use of LED lights. The first is from 2012, the second from 2015. Being brighter and bluish, NASA notes, the new lighting limits the ability to see the stars.
Impact of the Samuel Dam and deforestation
The hand of man also directly changes the landscape. The first photo shows part of the Jamari River, in Rondônia, Brazil, in the 1980s, shortly after construction of a hydroelectric dam began. In the second, from 2011, we can already see how the reservoir created by the dam flooded the forest upriver and the effects of the deforestation that plagues part of that region.
The shadow of forest fires
Fires also leave a shadow of ashes. The images show an area near Ashland, Kansas, burned during a wave of fires that covered around 315,600 hectares between that state and Oklahoma. In 2020, police opened an investigation into the causes of an arson attack in Almeda that started in Ashland and left homes razed in its wake.
Pictures | POT
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism